I love my bicycle.
Given the choice – and decent weather – I would ride it anywhere. I love Philly’s bike culture, I’ve spent more than I’d like to admit at our local bike shops, and I’ve even encouraged (or berated, perhaps, if you ask them) multiple friends to join Philly’s bicycle-riding ranks.
But I am not at all excited for the arrival of Philly’s first-ever bike share program, Indego. And I’m very much surprised that I feel like the only one.
Let me back up just a second. In case you haven’t heard, Indego officially debuts this Thursday. About 60 stations across the city will be filled with cyan-blue street cruisers that can be rented for cheap and ridden all over. Members will receive custom fobs linked to credit or debit cards, but tourists looking to try out the service can “WalkUp,” as Indego calls it, and pay on site for a slightly higher fee. In theory, this is all great. Like I said, I love riding my bike around Philly. And no one needs any more reasons why we should have fewer cars out on our city streets.
New York has a similar bike share service called Citi Bike, which has been pretty successful. My friends who live in New York use it rather frequently, and I’ve heard good things from visitors, too. It’s also been extremely safe. No one has died using Citi Bike in New York, despite the city’s wild automobile traffic, and as of August 2014, after more than 10.3 million rides, only 40 riders have been hurt badly enough to require medical attention.
But here’s the thing: Philadelphia is not New York.
In New York, traffic lights actually have bike-specific signals. In New York, many of the lanes aren’t simply spray-painted onto the asphalt, they’re actually separated from car traffic by concrete. And, by the way, in New York, most of the streets (especially the ones with bike lanes) are a lot wider than Philly’s old, narrow throughways. Car traffic plus inexperienced bike traffic on 15th Street in Center City? Forget it.
Last year, I took my bike up to New York for a long weekend and was warned by veteran cyclists not to worry about car traffic so much as Citi Bike traffic; it’s the newbies, they said, who unintentionally cause trouble just because of their inexperience. On our narrow streets, I have to think, that inexperience and those nerves will amplify that issue. And trust me, nerves will be an issue. Even to this day, after more than seven years riding around the city, I still feel threatened or uncertain from time to time. Especially this time of year, when potholes and street construction abound.
So, knowing that bike share is imminent, what can be done to make it as safe as possible here? Since it’s obviously just a little too late to widen the streets in Center City, maybe the PPA could finally get serious about preventing cars from parking in bike lanes — including on Sundays. Or, perhaps, police could work to crack down on drivers who intentionally try to run cyclists off the road (visit any Philly-based bike community’s Facebook page for evidence that this is already a problem). If unsteady riders rolling down sidewalks is a concern for pedestrians, maybe it’s time to finally ticket sidewalk cyclists with regularity.
It’s also worth noting that Indego riders aren’t required to wear helmets, though some local shops will offer a 10 percent discount on headgear to Indego users. All riders — owners or renters — should wear helmets. That’s at least a start.
Look, maybe I’ll be wrong. I want to be wrong. I want to celebrate the fact that Philly is finally embracing bike culture and I want bike share to be a success – for users and bike owners alike. Based on my own experiences, though, I just don’t see it.